July.10.2017

Are regular classroom teachers really not qualified to teach students with special needs?

By Linda Graham and Kate de Bruin and Ilektra Spandagou

Sure enough, representatives of parent and teacher groups have emerged to back Senator Pauline Hanson’s claims that children with ‘autism and disabilities’ should be removed from mainstream classroom.

Primary principals in south western Sydney were reported as saying a shortage of places in special schools and classes is leading to the placement of students with disability or special needs into regular classes with a teacher who is “not sufficiently qualified”.

No description of the necessary qualifications was provided in the article but the implication was clear: special qualifications are needed to teach special students. In other words, a regular teacher education qualification just doesn’t cut it.

At about the same time Dr James Morton, who is Chairman of the AEIOU Foundation and parent of a child with autism, in an interview on ABC radio criticised universities for failing to prepare teachers to teach students with disability. His chief complaint was that units specialising in autism are not mandatory in undergraduate teacher education programs and accused universities of not investing in Australia’s future.

Then we had Professor Kenneth Wiltshire of the UQ Business School who argued via an opinion piece that the states had pulled a “con job… late last century” by promising “disabled students could become mainstream in every way by being included in conventional schools”. He then claims the states only supported inclusion because they were “cost-cutting by closing many special schools”.

While confused and lacking any supporting evidence, Wiltshire’s article echoes points made in the other two examples:

  1. special students need to be educated by special teachers in special places,
  2. regular classroom teachers are not qualified to teach students with disability and/or universities are failing to adequately prepare them
  3. there are not enough special teachers and special places (because of inclusion and the closure of special schools).

Is there truth to any these claims?

In short, no.

Firstly, research consistently shows that educating students with disability in special places does not guarantee better academic or social outcomes, better employment prospects or post-school options and social inclusion. Quite the opposite, in fact.

This does not mean that they will do well in mainstream schools built for a narrow range of students. It means that local schools must evolve to cater to the full range of students. And this means teachers and teacher preparation must also evolve.

The 2016 Australian Senate Report made recommendations for teaching skills that would improve workforce capacity for inclusion: universal design for learning, differentiated teaching, and cooperative learning.

With this knowledge, teachers can identify what support students need to access the curriculum, engage in classroom activities, and achieve at school. These skills are emphasised in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, which since 2012 have underpinned the accreditation of university teacher education courses.

The Standards make clear that all classroom teachers are qualified to teach students with disability and/or additional needs. To be accredited, university teacher education courses must also cover four key focus areas that directly relate to students with disability: (i) differentiating teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities, (ii) supporting learning of students with disability, (iii) supporting student participation and engagement, and (iv) managing challenging behaviour.

Every graduating teacher must provide evidence that they meet each Standard to achieve registration to teach. To maintain their annual registration, existing teachers must provide evidence that they have engaged in professional learning relating to the Standards.

Clearly, there is a framework to ensure that registered classroom teachers are qualified to teach students with disabilities and/or additional needs, and for universities to prepare their graduates to do so. The benefits are seen in numerous schools and classrooms across the country, but there is scope for both teacher preparation programs and schools to embrace inclusive teaching practices.

Finally, the claim that places in special schools and classes have declined because of inclusion and the subsequent closure of special schools is completely false.

This is clear from a range of data sources.

 Research from New South Wales has shown that proportion of enrolments in separate special educational settings in Australia’s largest education system has been increasing since the 1990s. In other words, the “mainstream” is shrinking.

These findings are supported by national data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC) which shows that there was a 35% increase in the number of students with disability attending special schools between 2003 and 2015.

But most telling is this: Prior to the 1992 Disability Discrimination Act, before we signed the 1994 Salamanca Statement, and before “inclusion” was really a thing, there were 444 special schools accounting for 4.4% of all schools in Australia.

Almost three decades later — after the 2005 Disability Standards for Education, the 2008 Melbourne Declaration, and a multitude of reviews and inquiries nationally – there are now 461 special schools, accounting for 4.9% of Australian schools.

That represents an 11% increase in the number of special schools and this has occurred despite evidence that inclusion leads to more positive outcomes for students with disability.

We may well be living in a post-truth world but none of the empirical evidence supports the claims being made by Hanson’s backers.

 

Professor Linda Graham works in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Linda coordinates Inclusive Education Theory, Policy and Practice, a core unit in the Faculty of Education’s Master of Inclusive Education and leads QUT’s Student Engagement, Learning & Behaviour Research Group (@SELB_QUT), and is a member of the Board for All Means All – Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education. She has published more than 80 books, chapters and journal articles, and is leading two current large scale projects investigating educational responses to students with learning and behavioural difficulties. Linda blogs at drlindagraham.wordpress.com.au and can often be found on Twitter: @drlindagraham

Dr Kate de Bruin works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University Her current research investigates evidence-informed practice and policy in inclusive education, with a focus developing teacher capacity for using inclusive pedagogies in ways that improve equity and quality schooling for all students, and she regularly provides professional learning to school teachers in these areas. She has worked with government departments on projects such as the Victorian Inclusion Support Programme, and the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data for Students with Disabilities.

Dr Ilektra Spandagou is a senior lecturer at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She worked as a special teacher in mainstream settings before she completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield, UK, in inclusive education. She has worked in inclusive education in three countries: as a researcher at the University of Sheffield, UK, and as a lecturer at the University of Athens and the University of Thessaly, Greece, before moving to The University of Sydney. Her research interests include inclusion, disability, comparative education and classroom diversity. Her current research projects focus on inclusive policy and practice within a rights perspective. A common thread of this work is a conceptual understanding of inclusive education as a transformation project requiring a paradigmatic shift in perceptions of both ability and education. Her publications include the book ‘Inclusive Education: International Policy & Practice’ (co-authored with A.C. Armstrong and D. Armstrong) published by Sage in 2010.

25 thoughts on “Are regular classroom teachers really not qualified to teach students with special needs?

  1. David Zyngier says:

    Linda Kate and Ilektra many thanks for your timely rejection of the neo-con nonsense.

  2. Natalie Bird says:

    Parents are seeking alternative learning environments in droves because “the system” is not meeting the needs of these kids and causing associated mental health issues in them. I have two such children who have been forced out of schools for these reasons. Lack of options within schooling results in more kids dropping out.

  3. Hi, Natalie. Sorry to hear that your kids have had such a negative experience.

    Interestingly, the Senate Report (link provided in the article) indicates the opposite to your suggestion. choosing special schooling The Report noted that one of the primary drivers of families choosing to enrol their child in a special school was the gatekeeping at mainstream schools that discourages the enrolment of students with disability. While some parents do exercise their choice to enrol their child at a special school, as is their right, many parents and children who prefer a place at an inclusive school are having that right denied them. It is not the “lack of options in schooling”. Cheers, Kate

  4. Danielle Lawless says:

    A Parent-carer-advocate perspective. I categorically do not support Ms Hanson’s comments and some of the subsequent messaging being put forward suggesting children like mine should not be included in regular classes

    However directly from our own family’s individual experience I can’t be sure that the answer to the above question is in part not no. Perhaps from a qualifications perspective but not from an expertise level.

    Expertise for me not only includes the qualifications an individual teacher has but their ability to apply their qualifications. Even more broader how the environment or system they are in allows them apply their qualifications.

    The expertise my child needs not only comes from an individual teacher they may have but also at the school and systematic level. Even with the right expertise for our child so to speak this needs to be backed up by the right access to resources, funding, the right kind of attitudes, culture, thinking, the right kind of frameworks, policies procedures etc and for all of this to be systematically consistent

    My child has been in both environments ie a regular class and specialised support ones. Overall we have has more issues indicated above while in the specialised support settings than when they were in a regular class. While being in the regular was their best year of learning. This from our perspective was because there were no lowered expectations or assumptions based on a disability diagnosis.

    Once our child received an autistic diagnosis and since when their needs have changed we started experience direct messaging from teachers and the school settings that we don’t have the expertise to accommodate your child’s individual needs.

    Over the years we have seen varying ability for our child’s needs to be assessed and supported, with coinciding differential quality assured frameworks or systems this has taken place in. Over their educational journey they have had 4 different designed learning plans of varying quality and effectiveness, 3 different behaviour designed support plans of varying quality and effectiveness, and 4 different support cycles or frameworks of varying quality and effectiveness.

    When our child has been supported in the way they need they learn and flourish, When they have not been they have not and worse been exposed to reactive restrictive practices such as restraint

    All apologies as I tend not to articulate myself well and not being an academic in providing commentary here. I as a parent regretfully have chosen continually specialised support environments for our child, if I was informed as I am now I would not have made those choices and I use the term choice very very loosely. That is our choices have been blind, out of fear and at times coerced and emotionally manipulated. What I have learned from our own situation is how my child is supported at a reasonable level has and will determine how well they learn and what opportunity they have to be included. In other words I feel they could have always been supported in a regular class, but the right mixture of qualifications, expertise, funding and consistent systematic frameworks, attitudes and commitment is needed for that to be a reality

  5. Linda Graham says:

    You’re absolutely right, Danielle. Teacher qualifications is only part of the mix. Universities can provide our students with learning opportunities and students can apply the knowledge to pass assessments but that doesn’t mean they will apply it when they go into schools or that they will be able to withstand “advice” to “forget everything you learnt at university, this is how it’s done here”. That’s why quality induction and quality continuing professional learning is so important, in addition to resources, inclusive leadership, collaborative school cultures, respect for parents, and TIME for teachers to plan, consult with students, parents and allied health professionals. It’s also about the relative weight and emphasis that education providers place on inclusivity: is education for all or for some? It’s pretty easy to tell when we look at the level of curricular adjustments required…

  6. Hi, Danielle. Thank you for your valuable perspective here. I’m so sorry to hear about some of the negative experiences that your child has experienced. The variability in implementing inclusive schooling practices that you describe was a key focus of the Senate Report, and a driver for the reforms that have followed such as those relating to teacher education that we described above. I agree that the mixture of qualifications and systematic reforms is key here, as well as a steadfast commitment to the inclusion of every child. You may be interested in the recently published Deloitte Review of education for students with disability in Queensland state schools – see this post in All Means All for some discussion and the link to that report.
    Warmly, Kate de Bruin

  7. Hi,
    I have taught in a range of secondary schools and taught pre service teachers.
    When teachers have time to get to know their students they can adjust the learning to suit. Unfortunately large class sizes( pushed by John Hattie) and lack of time and experience lead often to a less than satisfactory outcome. In a creative arts classroom( I taught VA and Drama) there were many opportunities for students to be taught the same material. Unfortunately for the student with a disability this often only graded them as an E as it was often achieved only with teacher and peer support. There were mainstream students who also achieved an E through lack of effort, unfinished work, failure to turn up for assessment, school absence leading to break in educational continuity.
    BUT it is good for all students to be educated together. It is the outrageous expectations and box ticking that stresses the teacher. Kids are usually ok and work as well as they all can.
    In the pre service teaching unit I taught over 4 years…online….there was a very small window to teach about inclusion. This did not venture into teaching any particular group but stressed that all students be given the same opportunity to participate and achieve and that the teacher should plan and differentiate.
    The Sooners ev emote ourselves from the necessity to test every two years the better. All can then concentrate on learning experiences that are valuable and lead to achieving the best outcome for each individual.

  8. Ilektra Spandagou says:

    Hi Margaret,
    Your comment about the effects of high-stake testing and accountability is important as they create a culture that sees many students, including students with disabilities, as a potential liability for schools. Some of the points you made reminded me this piece by a colleague, Nichole Mockler, in this blog post

  9. Catherine Baker says:

    Thanks for this article – I agree.
    As a health professional, my training didn’t involve me learning about every single possible diagnosis / difficulty that a person I’m working with might have – that would have been impossible. What I did learn was how to work with that person to identify their strengths, their needs, their concerns and their goals, to gather and interpret information (including diagnostic information), and to work together towards the person’s goals (I learned some other things too, of course!).
    I expect the same of teachers – not to know everything about everything, but to know where to start – and in my experience, teachers are certainly qualified.
    The issues / gaps (in my view) are around attitude and expectation (a common theme, it seems) – community attitudes as well as those within schools.
    Thanks for your ongoing work to challenge these attitudes.

  10. Ilektra Spandagou says:

    Hi Catherine,
    your comment took me back at my initial teacher training in the early ’90s in Greece. I was exposed to two opposing approaches in the same course. We had a compulsory unit where we covered the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, Third Edition Revised (DSM-III-R). It was replaced by DSM-IV the year I graduated. Substantial part of what I learned then is now obsolete. I also did a unit on what we would translate now as ‘inclusive pedagogy’. A very innovative unit for its time.
    While the first unit made me feeling inadequate as a teacher in my ability to respond to students’ ‘deficits’ and needing other professionals to provide the expert knowledge, the inclusive education unit inspired me to see myself as an agent of change working with others to create inclusive environments. That’s the vision I took into the profession and it looked promising when I graduated in 1994, the year of the Salamanca Statement
    Sometimes it feels that very little has changed in nearly a quarter of a century, but my belief on what constitutes teachers’ professionalism hasn’t and it is about what you describe, not the technical implementation of expertise but the development of person-centered conditions for achieving goals. Thank you for your comment,

  11. Nat says:

    We got told continuously that our sons school could not meet his needs.
    We worked extremely hard with the school to support them and build a relationship with them – to try and increase our sons chances of being educated.
    End result was our son was expelled by the principal with no discussion, no transparency and no problems. He was eight!
    Words cannot capture the damage her actions caused to us and our son. The betrayal was horrific.
    There was no genuine consideration to where our son would be educated, she didn’t care. The Victorian education system didn’t care. The Minister didn’t care. Sadly, I know my sons story is not unique.
    If I had more money and time, there is no way I would ‘choose’ to send my son to mainstream school, as it’s a full time job advocating and educating principals and teachers how to meet his personal needs.
    Home schooling is the only safe and productive option for far too many young people.
    Our education system is seriously broken.

  12. That does sound like a devastating experience for all involved, Nat. These are the stories and experiences that motivate my colleagues and me to work as we do to reform the system and ensure genuine inclusion is implemented and that students and their families have their rights to a high-quality education met. I agree that there have been too many instances of the kinds of failures you have described (as found by the 2016 Senate Report). It sounds like you have been an amazing advocate for your son. I genuinely believe that the (relatively recent) Standards for teachers and teacher education will play a large role in preparing the new generation of teachers, and in upskilling the workforce, for genuinely inclusive schooling.

  13. Karen Thoms says:

    As a parent of a special needs child and a regular classroom teacher I see all sides of this issue very clearly. While I do not agree with Hanson’s sweeping statement I feel that in the effort to discredit her a few things have been left out
    1.”Spectrum’ as a parent of a child that I choose to put in a special setting because he is ASD even I have not got the full sense of this word. A team of people are needed to help provide the right educational needs for the child parents, teachers, therapists special needs teachers etc and they all need to communicate with each other. Now if I put my ‘teachers hat on’ no matter how much one person in this team might try in all the years I have been teaching I can probably count on 1 hand the amount of times this happens.
    2. Teachers (especially new ones) are not encouraged to ask for help and advice., they are so worried about filling out and getting that accreditation that if they can’t look like they have worked it out how to best educate that kid with the special needs by themselves that it will reflected badly upon them. again I mention that term ‘Spectrum’ There are some great managed practices learned in the academic setting but unless the team (as mentioned in my number 1.) Is in place then the best managed practices learned in university can not be effectively implemented.
    3. What about the students that are high functioning but need help with the social development. As well as the academic needs of a student, a lot of school is learning how to get along in the many social environments of life. Again if you put the high academic functioning but still special needs student in the wrong setting how in these developing years are they meant to develop the social skills to adapt to the different social experiences they will have.
    4. It is true that quite often in the school year that the special needs kid can take a lot. Of time in the classroom without the correct support for the student because personally the teacher might feel like they are not ‘doing enough for that student’ and therefore the rest aren’t achieving their learning goals. I really must ask the question that is tolerance also taught at home with other students? Even from the earliest age students get a sense of who may need the most help within their learning environment and use that to manipulate their surroundings to potentially fall under ‘the radar’ is this being taught how to be recognised in university?

    Coming from both the teachers and parents perspective I do not agree with what Pauline Hanson said however I do not think that teachers are adequately prepared and can not be for the range of students they will get throughout their teaching career. I also do not think that there is enough support staff to support the teacher and that there is not enough communication between health professionals and schools. The whole system needs to be reviewed and the concentration needs to be on what meets the individual needs of a student from all perspectives as one students needs will be vastly different from another.

  14. Hi Karen. The review you describe was conducted and reported on in 2016 by the Commonwealth Senate. You can find a link to it in the article. State-based reviews have also been done. For example, the Deloitte Review on Inclusive Education in Queensland was released in February this year – see here for some discussion and links

    I agree that high-quality mentoring of new teachers to seek to build and enhance their knowledge for supporting students needs is vital. I also agree that teacher. collaboration with professionals outside schools could improve. I have seen some outstanding examples of schools that do this well, but others where it could be better. These are key aspects focused on in preparing graduate teachers at university which my colleagues and I see as one way to enhance this in the workforce,
    Cheers,
    Kate

  15. Sharyn Davis says:

    They say that the number of enrolments in special education is increasing. What about the number of special needs enrolments in mainstream? They don’t even comment about that. Think about how many more children with special needs have been diagnosed in the last 3 decades! Special school enrolments alone would not account for those huge increases.
    Plus they said that people are saying special needs schools are decreasing. It isn’t special needs schools it is special needs units in mainstream being closed forcing children into inclusion in mainstream whether they are ready or not and not enough support to help them. That is teachers or aides. Teachers may have to identify special needs. In theory that is one thing. In practice, attitude towards them can be horrific due to their differences from those teaching and peers. Our sons current mainstream teacher does not believe my son should be included. After six months in his class with my son having appropriate support for his needs and not being rushed into inclusion our son is finally settling and thriving for the first real time (He is in Yr 5 should be in 6). His teachers attitude this semester towards him is much more positive. His teacher has started spending time watching him learn and seeing his progress. We are lucky our son is showing this teacher just because he is different doesn’t mean he needs to be excluded. We are one of a lucky few, most end up expelled or are homeschooled by choice due to be forced and rushed into inclusion.

  16. Ilektra Spandagou says:

    Hi Sharyn, the impression that special education settings are closing down isn’t supported from data, at least in NSW where I am based. In NSW there is a clear trend of increase in special education settings. The New South Wales Auditor-General’s Report published in 2016 states that in the period 2011-2014
    there has been an increase in the number of students enrolled in special education settings. In particular the increase is 19% for students in support classes and 12% for students in special schools.

    The Annual Reports of the NSW Department of Education provide data on students and classes. In 2009 there were 17544 students in a total of 2310 special classes of all types (combined support units and special schools),. In 2015 there were 21500 students in a total of 2860 classes (again combined support units and special schools) (Information from the 2010 and 2016 Annual Reports respectively).

    The impact of the increase in special education settings of any kind is experienced by students in regular school as well, as it reinforces the impression that there are other places for students that are perceived as ‘challenging’ by schools and teachers. This means, for example, that time-poor teachers may consider a different place as a more appropriate for some students rather than investing in making the school work for all their students.

  17. Linda Graham says:

    Hi Sharyn,

    This is an area in which I conducted a three year research fellowship and have published a number of papers focusing on NSW, Australia’s largest education system, which you may be interested in reading, here and here.

    Every review of education for students with disability – whether national or state – points to similar trends/issues. This is because each system is struggling with the same exclusionary pressures…

    Based on the data from NSW, your impression that special units are closing is not supported by the evidence. In fact there has been a significant increase in the use of support classes over time.

    We referred to this research in our article when we said “Research from New South Wales has shown that proportion of enrolments in separate special educational settings in Australia’s largest education system has been increasing since the 1990s. In other words, the “mainstream” is shrinking.”

    By ‘separate special educational settings’ we meant special schools AND support classes. Both have been increasing, while mainstream enrolments have been declining.

    I now live in QLD and the situation here is no different.

    In your comment you also referred to the increase in enrolment of students with special needs…

    This is quite a complicated issue and, again, is something we investigated in the NSW study. The Weekend Australian published a story featuring our research and you might find it interesting.

    I also challenge the accuracy of claims about increases in special needs identification here.

    The numbers don’t necessarily reflect what one might think they do…

    Finally, yes, the level of knowledge, skill and attitudes in the existing teacher workforce is a problem. We agree with that and call on governments to invest in quality continuing professional development.

    Finally, our article is about initial teacher education. There is only so much that we can do in pre-service teacher degrees.

    Making sure that teachers use and build on that knowledge is the responsibility of education providers who are obligated to abide by the Disability Discrimination Act and the Standards for Education.

    If everyone plays their part, we will achieve inclusive education in Australia. I’m really glad that your son is doing better now but it shouldn’t come down to luck. He has a right to an inclusive education, as do all students with disability.

    We will continue to do our best to work towards this outcome.

  18. Georgina says:

    Our system may be theoretically ok, however I would suggest that researchers join the many on-line support forums and discover the reality of how underprepared, under resourced and under experienced the educators and the system really is….. being inclusive doesn’t simply mean being enrolled there….. it is endlessly frustrating for parents of children with additional needs to source a school mainstream or otherwise that can accomodate their child’s way of learning.

  19. Hi Georgina. I agree that it is incredibly important that there are strong and regular connections made between researchers and teachers, parents and students. Inclusion is indeed much more than attending the local school. I engage in online forums and also deliver school-based PD for teachers to develop their skills for inclusive teaching. I believe that this is beneficial for all – the students, the teachers, the parents and the researchers.

  20. Simone Ryan says:

    Really? My daughters teachers just cut down the curriculum via amount and made no effort to teach how she best learns, couldn’t recognise that behaviour issues were severe anxiety and saw failure to ask for help as a behavioural issue that parents needed to address. Sorry but we need teachers who know how to engage our kids and know how to analyse behaviour and use positive behaviour support rather than punishment of neurology. We need teachers who don’t arc up when we try and implement strategies prepared by professionals such as OTs and psychologists – that understand that they are part of a team for our child and implementing simple things like scheduled activity breaks and using things like choices and visuals is what our kids need. I want a school that isn’t intent on having a power struggle with me as a parent who’s been managing my child’s supports for years and is the expert on how to best support my child. They might be an education expert but they need to make my child feel safe at school before she can learn. They need to ensure she’s not prevented from self regulating and stop using things like taking away recess and PE as consequences for behaviour that arises from their poor choices in not allowing her to self regulate. In Vic the teachers who have these skills are in special schools and are not available to my child who is only eligible for a mainstream school. They know she has behavioural issues. They gave her funding under severe behaviour, yet none of her teachers was qualified to manage that behaviour and instead used punishment, isolation and parental blame methods. When will our teachers get these skills? When will schools start using positive behaviour support as their gold standard? Special schools and disability services do because it is the evidence based gold standard. But kids with disability in mainstream schools are not given this support. I believe it is discrimination against people of disability with a certain range of IQ and language score. Our country is better than this. We do know better. We must do better!

  21. Hi Simone. It sounds as if you have been really let down at your school. I agree that positive behaviour support collaboration with parents and other professionals are key support approaches for students with needs like those you describe as your daughter’s. My co-authors and I all teach in University teacher educatoin courses and these are mainstays of teacher preparation for every single graduate teacher. While the majority of kids needing these supports are indeed provided with them in regular schools, unfortunately, there are pockets of the workforce that need to build and develop these skills – in both regular as well as special schools, as shown by the inappropriate restraint and seclusion occurring in both settings. I wholeheartedly agree that we are better than this, and we must do better than this.

  22. Fiona Werle says:

    As a sandtray therapist I would like to see all schools introducing this non-verbal form of expressive play, so that all kids especially those with autism can use this as a preventative. We so often forget to look at solutions and only focus on the problem. With such a huge increase in rates of autism, we should ask why, and then help those we can. Sandtray Play Work is such prevention.

  23. Catia Panetta says:

    As the parent of a child with intellectual disability who needs significant support in regular school, one of the the biggest challenge for my son has never been a teacher who lacks the “skill” but one who lacks the “will” to include. Unfortunately, lack of “skill” is too often used as an excuse to push students out by an education culture that does not see disability as a natural part of human diversity that can be accommodated but rather sees disability as clinical deficit to be dealt by “specialists” elsewhere. i.e. the “medical” or “deficit” model of disability that stubbornly continues to guide much of the thinking about disability today and unfortunately many educators.

    I am glad to see this article challenge the assumption that “special” education is appropriate for a child with “special needs” and by implication, that a regular school is not – we know that decades of research have overwhelmingly demonstrated that there is nothing “special” about “special education” and in particular, in “special” settings. In fact, in the context of intellectual disability a comprehensive review of all studies over a 40-year period that compared education outcomes for students with disability in segregated “special” versus regular education environments, and found that no study supported better outcomes in “special” settings.

    I do think some teachers need a lot of support in terms of educating individual students but also in their own ongoing development as professionals who are required to educate the diverse group of children who are today’s learners (not last century’s when disabled people were institutionalised, shut out and denied fundamental rights like the right to education). And I don’t doubt that teachers who turn up at school after doing an education degree, don’t know everything about teaching and will continue to acquire skills and develop expertise because undergraduate uni degrees can only ever provide core skills – isn’t that the case for most professionals? Similarly, teachers who aren’t asked to teach students with disability and diverse learning needs – because they’ve been shipped off and handed over to the “special” educators in “special” places – will not have the opportunity to develop those skills whereas teachers who do, will be learning on the job and should also be supported with access to formal PD opportunities and external professionals where appropriate.

    The Final Report of the 2015 Review of the Disability Standards for Education 2005 noted an unwillingness of many mainstream school administrators to enrol students with disability:

    “There are reports of schools discouraging enrolments for a multitude of reasons.  A particular tension uncovered is that between mainstream and specialist schools. Parents of children with disabilities sometimes find that they are discouraged from enrolling in mainstream schools, and encouraged to pursue specialist options for a wide range of disabilities.” [p21]

    It also noted:
    “Mainstream classrooms versus segregated classes, or isolating learning arrangements for some students with disability was flagged as a major issue. Some parents reported feeling pressured to place children in supported streams or special classes rather than being integrated inclusively in mainstream classes.” [p26]

    It’s the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes all over again – as parents we are often “sold” the myth that “special” is better and we are too reluctant to question it because it is being offered up as legitimate by those we trust and expect to know – but who, in reality are often self-interested or uninformed. To suggest that only teachers in special settings are qualified to educate student with disability is not only wrong on the evidence but it has been working for too long to cloud a fundamental issue of attitudes and let everyone else off the hook with the result that students with disability continued to be denied their legal and basic human rights to access education in regular Australian schools.

  24. Rebecca says:

    Thanks for your article it was interesting to see the ‘facts’ separated from the sensational hype we so often have to depend on.
    That being said, from a personal perspective our experience is that neither the system, nor the teachers are set up to educate in an effective inclusive way. They talk the talk, and perhaps they try, but the reality is that inclusivity quite often just ends up being babysitting for our kids with special needs.
    Another major failing of the current system is is that it is set up so that a child has to already be failing/struggling before any access to additional supports is granted.
    The side issue of there being such misunderstandings in the medical and allied health professions of what it looks like to be ‘autistic’ that kids are being left undiagnosed and undersupported way too long.
    Our story is a long one, but it is not an unusual one.
    My son is 11 now, and from his preschool years we knew he wasn’t at the same level as his peers, but despite us following all the recommendations and getting assessments and paying big $$$ from our own pockets to get him access to extra therapies, it still took until he was 9 to diagnose his ASD and Dyslexia. By that time the supports that were put in place for him were too little too late.
    He has been struggling to keep his head above water in school, but because he wasn’t ever disruptive in class no one paid attention to his needs. By year 4 he had become so disheartened at not being able to do the work at the same level as his peers that he just gave up.
    The teachers all claimed to be willing to accomodate him and provide supports, but there was rarely much follow-through.
    And why on earth do schools not do handovers at the end of the year to the new teacher?!?!? Every single year we have had to start from scratch and it always takes months for the teachers to get on board with the accomodations that are required.
    On top of that, they are often so resistant to hearing the parent’s suggestions for what is required to help their child thrive.
    Our son spent so long being under-supported by the mainstream school environment that he has spent the last 6 months refusing school at all.
    I admit that the school did their best to work with us during that period to try and get him back, but really it was too little too late. By that time, my bright, intelligent, but struggling boy had lost faith in their ability to support him, and so he started to play up. And that was the point where the school advised that they didn’t have what he needed and we should look elsewhere.
    That left accessing a special education school or unit, or homeschool. Despite him no longer being a good fit for his existing (local public) school and him having not accessed school for 6 months, there wasn’t any other available places for him to go within the public system.
    So we’ve ended up having to go through the private system. He has since been offered a place at an autism-special school and as we don’t have any other options we are taking it.
    Because of his experience in mainstream and his compete lack of self-esteem at this point this basic level of education seems to be our only option. The class has 4 kids, a teacher and a teacher’s aide, so we can only hope they will actually be able to provide him with an actual individualised education.
    He is happy with the choice and so we are happy with the choice, but it shouldn’t have got to this.
    Our new goal is to spend the next 18 months working with the new school (that is an hour away by car by the way), building his skills and confidence back up again and hopefully transitioning him to an autism unit in a mainstream setting for high school.
    Fingers-crossed it takes, because our next step is homeschool which will change the dynamics and financial situation in our family significantly.

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